Saturday, March 4, 2017

Honest Lent: Introduction

Artwork showing someone getting ashes on their forehead. Image source.
Last December I did a series called Honest Advent, and I liked it so much that I'm going to do the same thing for Lent. The basic idea is that a few times per week, I'll read a bible passage and then blog about my opinions on it. No pressure to agree with it, no pressure to understand every part or answer all the questions that come up, no pressure to do it every single day.

For real, no pressure. Ash Wednesday was 3 days ago and I totally did not see it coming, not til I got home from work that evening and saw people talking about it on twitter. So the first 3 days of Lent I didn't do ANYTHING Lent-y, and guess what, I do not feel one bit bad about that. And for "Honest Lent," I'm [most likely] not going to read the bible every day. I'm going to do it only when I want to. I don't even see that as an ideal, as if it's obviously better to read the bible every day during Lent than to read the bible on some days. No, the ideal amount to read the bible is the amount I want to, however much I feel like doing it over the next month.

I'm making such a big deal about this "I'm not doing it every day and I don't feel bad about that" because in the evangelical culture I come from, everyone knew that the most godly Christians need to take time every day and read the bible. In college, I used to wake up early and spend 40 minutes to an hour every day reading the bible, praying, and journaling. And in that culture, people are required to act guilty if they don't live up to that standard; they "confess" that they "struggle" and aren't "making God a priority." They are socially required to talk about how they're such bad Christians for not reading the bible enough.

But I don't believe that anymore. Nowadays, I very rarely read the bible, and I don't feel one bit bad about that. (And maybe if you want me to feel bad, you need to ask yourself some hard questions about why you follow a religion which doesn't value mental health and would rather people have depression than not read the bible.) The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.

ANYWAY. So. Here's the bible reading plan I chose (link is a pdf). So the first one is Luke 4:1-13. Go read it and we'll talk about it.

Here are the things I noticed:

1. Jesus ate nothing for 40 days? Really? Is that possible? All right, I googled and found some information about hunger strikes, and it seems like generally people can survive 30-40 days with no food, but not too much beyond that. And only if they're still drinking water. You really need water.

All right so it's possible, but is this a good idea? It's supposed to be super-spiritual, but ... why? This could have very bad long-term effects on a person's health.

And hey, can we talk about fasting a little bit? Growing up evangelical, I never heard about anyone I knew who was fasting. I guess there are some types of Christianity that are more into it? My church was not. Then when I was in a Christian group in college, I heard people talking about fasting- as in, an actual real-life thing that they did- and I did it a few times. (There were even times that a group of us decided to all fast on the same day.) But nobody ever taught me how exactly to do it. I wasn't sure if I was allowed to drink water or not. (After the first time fasting, I found out that people said you should still drink water- but how could I have known that? My body told me I needed to eat, and I was ignoring that need, so how could I have known that my body's need to drink water was a VERY IMPORTANT thing that could be medically dangerous to ignore?)

There was even one time when I was praying at night, and suddenly I knew that God was telling me to fast the next day. So I did. As I recall, nothing out of the ordinary happened that day- nothing to explain why "God" had "told me" to fast that particular day. But that's the relationship I had with God back then- I didn't have the right to make my own decisions, he could order me to do anything, and I would have to do it even if it made no sense. Yeah, I'm glad I'm not in that relationship anymore.

It's a really bizarre concept- denying a very real, urgent physical need because apparently that's what God wants you to do. A really dangerous concept, in my opinion.

(Readers: I'd be interested in hearing your experiences with fasting/ whether you were taught anything about fasting in church.)

[content note for the next paragraph: gun violence]

2. Satan says, "If you are the Son of God..." Now that's interesting because evangelicals like to tell a lot of stories where someone "stood up for God" by doing just what a bad person told them they should do if they are true followers of God. Probably the most common example of this trope is the shooter who asks his victims "Do you believe in God?" and presumably would choose not to kill them if they answered "no." The thing that has always bothered me about these stories that the bad guy defines what devotion to God looks like in that situation, and then the hero acts according to the bad guy's definition. Like, let's be real, if somebody's trying to kill you, you don't have to stand around and answer their questions honestly- you do whatever the hell you can to get out of there. (Even lying is okay.)

So when satan says, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread," shouldn't Jesus "stand up for God" by, you know, telling the stones to become bread? Otherwise, isn't he denying that he's the Son of God? NO. Because satan doesn't get to make the rules. Just because satan claims that the Son of God would do this or that doesn't mean it's true. He's just making it up. Don't play by his rules.

3. Every time Jesus answers, he quotes a bible verse. Now, when I learned about this story in Sunday school as a little kid, the teachers made a big deal about "this is why it's really really important to study the bible, so you'll know what to say when you face temptation." But I don't see it that way anymore. Because that's almost like "you have to have a bible verse backing you up when you refuse to do something- 'I don't want to' isn't a good enough reason." Which totally flies in the face of the entire concept of consent.

I believed that I didn't have the right to make my own choices based on my own desires. Instead, I had to figure out what was the "right" thing to do and what was the "wrong" thing to do. That's why we were supposed to study the bible so much- so that we would be really sure about the "right" things and the "wrong" things.

In this way of thinking, when satan tells Jesus "tell these stones to become bread," Jesus would have to then figure out if telling the stones to become bread was a sin or not, in some absolute sense. If it is a sin, he should refuse to do it. If he feels like it's a bad idea, he doesn't want to, he's not comfortable with it, but he can't pinpoint the exact reason why and back it up with a "logical"* argument, then it's much more difficult for him to refuse. He can try to give some polite excuses, but if satan keeps pushing, well, Jesus feels he doesn't actually have a "good reason" and he'll give in.

(*I put "logical" in scare quotes because I very much believe that "I am uncomfortable with this" IS a perfectly logical and valid reason, even though it is purely based in emotion. People often talk as if a thing can only be "logical" if it's completely unrelated to emotion, but I disagree with that.)

No. When you make personal decisions that don't harm anyone else, you're not required to present your reasons to a jury of your peers and wait for their approval. No. "I want to do this" and "I don't want to do this" are good enough reasons. Period.

Purity-culture girls and ex-purity-culture girls seem to have an especially hard time with this. They often feel that they need to say yes if a good Christian guy asks them on a date- they need to "give him a chance" even if they're not interested. They can only say no if they can frame their refusal as "God told me" rather than "I don't want to." And when we're no longer in purity culture, we don't know how to make decisions based on our own desires- we have no experience in that, nobody ever taught us how. For example, maybe your partner wants to come to your home, but you're not comfortable with that, but you can't really explain why. All you can think is "well I don't believe it's a sin anymore, so... I guess I have to say yes?" It's very difficult to make that transition from asking "Is this right or wrong?" to asking "What do I want?"

4. "The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world." Wait, really? "In an instant"? How have I never noticed that phrase? (I guess I generally read Matthew's version, which doesn't say "in an instant.") Wtf? Where are you going to go where you can see all the kingdoms of the world? Even if the writer thought the earth was flat (...did they?), how high would you even have to be to see them all? Did they believe there actually was a mountain that high? How long would it take Jesus and satan to hike up there? (Are they old buddies who go on mountain-climbing trips together?) And if your field of view was wide enough to include "all the kingdoms", wouldn't they be so far away that you couldn't really see any details? Like, they wouldn't look very tempting from that distance, right?

Or perhaps satan did a miracle and somehow showed Jesus "all the kingdoms" without any mountain-climbing involved? (Or maybe he showed a powerpoint? Or a flipchart? Flannelgraph? Or maybe this entire thing happened in a dream? A vision? Or Jesus was hallucinating because he was starving?)

I'm suddenly realizing this story isn't that realistic and maybe, maybe maybe maybe... should not be taken literally.


Well this gets into the question of what I believe about what the bible actually is, and honestly I don't have a good answer for that. I guess my position is that I think the stories about Jesus literally happened- but wow, the devil "showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world"? Really? I don't think so.

5. I just realized that throughout this entire blog post, I've been using the name "satan", but the passage itself only says "the devil." In the Christian culture I come from, there's an assumption that those are 100% interchangeable, but now I'm wondering if maybe the writers of the bible didn't understand them that way. Hmm. I should probably do more research on that.

6. The devil quotes Scripture too. People say that in church- "The devil quotes Scripture too." They meant it's not enough to read the bible- you have to know the "correct" interpretation too. There were frequent warnings about people who "twist Scripture." But now that all my beliefs have changed, I find that the things I believe now are the things that those supposed "false teachers" who "twist Scripture" believe. So the whole "twisting Scripture" thing is really a way to say "my interpretation is OBVIOUSLY the correct interpretation, and anyone who disagrees is automatically wrong."

Let me give you an example. I no longer believe it's a sin to have unmarried sex. So, good evangelicals are all like "the bible is clear, premarital sex is a sin"- but it's actually not "clear" at all. Over and over and over, the bible says that "sexual immorality" is a sin. But there's nothing immoral about consenting adults choosing to have sex and not hurting anybody. Yes, I believe "sexual immorality" is a sin (well, I believe any kind of immorality is a sin...) but it's totally possible to have unmarried sex without being immoral about it.

Clearly, I am "twisting Scripture."

At it's core, the "twisting Scripture" accusation is "well, you're wrong, because OBVIOUSLY that's not what they meant." That's literally all it is. Supposedly there's one "obvious", "clear" interpretation of the bible, and everyone knows it, but then some people try to "twist Scripture" to make it say things it OBVIOUSLY doesn't say.

So when Christians read this passage in Luke 4 with the mindset of "satan is twisting Scripture," ehhh no I don't like that. The reason Jesus shouldn't jump off the highest point of the temple is because THAT'S A TERRIBLE IDEA. Not because "that's not what the author of Psalm 91 really meant."

All right that's all I have to say about this passage. Readers, what are your thoughts? And are you doing anything special for Lent?

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